I kinda hesitated to write this post because I don’t like this piece of advice and I wish it didn’t hold true for me. But it does. And not just when I’m struggling to write either – even when the words are flowing freely, I have to do this thing before I can sit down to write.
Ready to find out what it is?
I know. That’s not what you were after. You’re probably thinking; ‘Lucy, you promised me useful advice to tackle writer’s block and what you give me is tidying? I’m off.”
I told you it was going to be annoying. But stay with me a moment longer because there’s scientific basis to this claim. Let me explain.
The science and psychology
When our work environments are cluttered and disordered, it creates visual confusion. Our brains need to work harder to process the scene and to pick out individual items, leaving us with less brain power available for other tasks, like coming up with great writing ideas.
Research has also found that messy spaces are linked with increased stress and procrastination, both at home and at work.
One study, for example, compared how women described their homes with their levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Those who said their homes were cluttered were more likely to exhibit higher cortisol levels.
Another study looked at cluttered workspaces and found that there was a link between procrastination and workplace mess.
Since stress and procrastination are both a big part of writer’s block, it makes sense that tidying up can help us get unstuck.
Trying to write in a messy room
Although I am sure this will shock my mother, who still remembers the state of my teenage bedroom with a shudder, I’m well aware of the effect a cluttered environment has on my ability to concentrate. I find it both distracting and slightly stressful to sit in a messy room.
Since I live with two small children in an open plan flat, my workspace is usually a complete tip. I’ve learnt that I need to deal with the mess before I can sit down to write, or I won’t get anywhere.
And it seems that I am not alone. The rising popularity of minimalism and the success of Marie Kondo demonstrate that plenty of other people want their interiors to feel ordered and mess-free.
If you are lucky enough to have a dedicated study, or at least a space that is away from your main living area, you hopefully won’t find it takes too long to put everything in order. Because I work at our kitchen table, in a room that also functions as a living room, kids’ playroom, study, dining room… tidying up can take a while!
Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely worth it. Putting my physical space in order seems to unblock my mental space too – is this something you find?
If I’m stuck for ideas when I first get started, I often find that they come to me as I tidy.
Cleaning the bathroom is good for this too, it turns out, but I’d rather organise the living room than clean the toilet…
Still, I do need to spend some time actually writing, or tidying becomes a procrastination method rather than a means to an end. I’ve tried to set up our space so that it is naturally organised and uncluttered.
We are big advocates of minimalism in our household. This is partly a matter of necessity, since there are four of us sharing a two-bed flat, and partly a matter of ethics – I try not to put too much importance on stuff.
Even so, we’d fallen into some bad habits at the beginning of this year. Luckily, moving to homeworking has meant that I’ve had plenty of opportunity to notice where our storage or systems were letting us down and to put them right.
Now when I want to write, it takes me much less time to put everything in order, which is a real relief.
Although this is obviously anecdote, rather than science, I genuinely believe that sorting out and decluttering our space has made me more productive as a writer and prevents me from getting writer’s block as often.
Resources to get you started
Have I sold you on the tidying idea yet? If you are sort of convinced but not yet sure how to put this into action, here’s a list of 3 resources I found helpful in inspiring me to tackle writer’s block by decluttering and tidying our home:
Hannah Bullivant ‘s blog, newsletter, and e-courses [https://www.hannahbullivant.com/]
I love everything Hannah produces – she’s a stylist who specialises in clutter-free, seasonally inspired interiors. I don’t know her personally but have been an avid fangirl since I discovered her Instagram a few years ago.
Back in Spring 2020, when the UK was first going into lockdown, Hannah put together a free five-day e-course to help us all turn our homes into beautiful, organised sanctuaries. I notice she’s since fleshed out and expanded the original short course to make a full two-month course. I’ve not done the paid-for version yet, but it is definitely on my wish-list. If your budget won’t stretch to the course at the moment, Hannah also offers loads of advice via her mailing list and Instagram, so there’s plenty to inspire you.
Madeleine Olivia’s YouTube channel [https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4CpQoAPJNGGUPG92Fbwxqw]
I first discovered Madeleine Olivia because she shares lots of vegan content (I’m not vegan, but I do try to eat vegan meals several times a week). But I stayed because she has loads of videos on decluttering that I found useful. And a really cute dog.
Madeleine has also written a book on minimalism (called Minimal) which I haven’t read yet but is another item for the wish-list. I may have to direct my husband to this blog post for Christmas ideas…
The Fly Lady [http://flylady.net/]
I was pointed to the Fly Lady by my mother, so you know this is a great recommendation! To be honest, I had to unsubscribe from the emails after about a week because she sends so many. But there’s a helpful UK based Facebook group and the website has lots of resources too. The Fly Lady is all about setting up systems and doing a little each day, which means your home never gets too messy and you can just have a quick straighten up when you need to concentrate on your writing.
I hope you’ve found this post useful and perhaps less annoying than you first thought! Let me know in the comments if you also find tidying up helps to release your creative flow.
Bravo, M.J. and H. Farid (2006) Object recognition in dense clutter, Perception & Psychophysics 68, pages 911–918, https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03193354
Ferrari, J.R., C. A. Roster, K.P. Crum & M.A. Pardo (2018) Procrastinators and Clutter: An Ecological View of Living with Excessive “Stuff”, Current Psychology (37), pages 441–444, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-017-9682-9
Stephanie McMains and Sabine Kastner (2011) Interactions of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex, Journal of Neuroscience 31 (2), pages 587-597, https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3766-10.2011
Roster, C.A. and J.R. Ferrari (2020) Does Work Stress Lead to Office Clutter, and How? Mediating Influences of Emotional Exhaustion and Indecision, Environment and Behaviour 52 (9), pages 923-944, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0013916518823041
Saxbe, D.E. and R. Repetti (2009) No Place Like Home: Home Tours Correlate With Daily Patterns of Mood and Cortisol, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36 (1), pages 71-81, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0146167209352864